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New data dispels charges of racism in Buffalo's fire exam

The Buffalo firefighter exam is coming up May 1, but the Common Council’s immediate focus is on finding someone to administer the psychological portion and re-evaluating 41 potential recruits rejected during the last hiring process on the recommendations of the city's former psychologist.

About a dozen African-American applicants – most for the Fire Department – complained to a Council committee in late February that they passed other parts of the fire or police test but were removed from eligibility lists after a 10- to 15-minute verbal psychological exam that they felt had racial undertones and was biased against them because they are African-American.

However, numbers obtained from the city by The Buffalo News through a Freedom of Information Law request do not bear out the racism claims.

The data – from 2014, the last time the Fire Department hired – show that African-Americans made up 39.5 percent of the 2,418 who took the written exam and 36.6 percent of the 1,219 applicants who made the first cut, which included passing the written test. After that, African-Americans made up 36.8 percent of those rejected for other reasons – including residency or failing the department's physical ability, drug or polygraph exams.

Blacks made up 36.6 percent of those rejected solely on the bases of the psychological exam.

Figures for the Police Department, which last hired in 2016, were similarly proportional. Census estimates show the city's population is about 37.4 percent black.

“Ultimately, it proves it wasn’t a racial issue,” said Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, whose South District is home to many Buffalo police and fire personnel. "More or less, it just proves either (the psychologist’s) lack of competence or his lack of adherence to ethics. If you look at the number of black candidates and the number of white candidates, I believe the percentages are almost identical."

Jay A. Supnick, founder of Law Enforcement Psychological Associates in Rochester, administered the psychological exams for the city for the last six years, until he quit last month following the racism accusations leveled against him.

Supnick, who had received $300 per interview session, submitted his resignation March 6, the same day the Council initiated proceedings to fire him. He said then that he "terminated the city's contract" because he didn't feel the Council had done an adequate investigation of the allegations or treated him fairly, noting that he was hamstrung in defending himself due to doctor-patient confidentiality requirements.

"The comments that were told to the Council were misrepresentations of the truth, distortions of fact, and some of them seemed to be complete fabrications," Supnick said Thursday, when asked about the data. "We have not had any adverse impact throughout the six years that I’ve had the contract. The claim that the decision was made based on a 15-minute interview was totally misleading. We had asked over 2,000 questions on an extensive background history questionnaire, psychological tests and an autobiography before the candidates even came into the interviews."

Complaints of racial bias may oust Buffalo's police, fire psychologist

He added that some of the candidates had been previously evaluated and were already familiar to the firm and that "typically interviews lasted 45 minutes."

Asked if he would reapply for the contract, he had no comment.

Other reasons for change

Despite the numbers showing blacks were not disproportionately rejected by Supnick, Council members say there were other reasons to oust him, including "inappropriate" questions having nothing to do with race.

Complaints about Supnick from applicants for both the fire and police departments date back as far as 2015, Council members said. Scanlon, for instance, said the “vast majority” of complaints he received involved “unethical and inappropriate” questions from Supnick that pertained to the personal lives of individuals, whether it was about their sexual history or the deaths of parents.

“Just some stuff that was really inappropriate,” Scanlon said.

Council President Darius G. Pridgen said “the (Fire Department) numbers almost mirror the same numbers from the last complaints we got from police (applicants). That is why I felt the process and the psychologist may not have been the right (fit) for Buffalo, not just for one segment of Buffalo.”

Police, fire psychologist ends city contract, says Council treated him unfairly

Explaining why he thinks the focus on Supnick initially revolved around possible racism, Pridgen said it was because the people who contacted his office happened to be African-American. They began meeting together on their own and became the most organized and vocal of the applicants who were removed from the eligibility list based on Supnick’s recommendations.

“Because initially it appeared that there could be an overwhelming number of one race” being rejected, Pridgen said, adding that that's why “the Council did its due diligence to look at the numbers.”

A new process

Beyond severing ties with Supnick, Council members are evaluating the entire system of how candidates are hired for the police and fire departments. For now, they are focusing on firefighter applicants because that hiring process begins with a new round of entry exams May 1.

The 41 applicants removed based on Supnick's recommendation – 15 blacks, 23 whites, two Hispanics and one classified as "other" – will have another chance to appeal their removal. But this time, it will be under a new process the Council started last month that allows applicants to appeal denials verbally in front of the appeals committee. Before, applicants could only appeal in writing to the committee, a process Council members felt was inadequate.

“That was somewhat questionable because not everyone has a strong writing style,” said University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, chair of the Council's Civil Service Committee. “It didn’t give them an opportunity to make a case for themselves. This is a better opportunity for people to articulate their position on why they should be accepted.”

In addition, the Council has added two individuals to the five-member appeals committee. Retired D’Youville College President Sister Denise A. Roche will be the moderator and the Rev. Edward Jackson Jr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, will sit on the committee. Jackson has an advanced degree in mental health, Pridgen said.

Human Resources Commissioner Gladys Herndon-Hill, Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer, Assistant Corporation Counsel John V. Heffron and one representative each from the fire and police departments round out the committee, Wyatt said.

Council members also are “exploring some options” for hiring a new psychologist, although a request for proposals has not been issued yet, Wyatt said. One possibility could involve a psychologist who can administer the exam remotely, he said.

“The Council’s goal is to improve the process,” Wyatt said.

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